“If you have a touch-tone phone, press 1 now.”
This puzzled me. This instruction might have been necessary decades ago, when the telephonic ecosystem was shifting from dialing to touch tone, but surely it is unneeded these days because all phones are touch tone. Rotary phones disappeared long ago and don’t even work on today’s telephone system, right?
Wrong. Boy, is that wrong. Just ask Barbara Itchkawich of Alton, who called me on her dial telephone.
“I have one in the kitchen and one in the basement,” said Itchkawich, who gave a good Yankee reason for not updating the technology. “It’s functioning, it works. I think: if it ain’t broke, don’t throw it out.”
Plus, she added, “the grandkids find it fascinating.”
I know about Itchkawich’s rotary phone because I put an item in the Monitor asking whether such phones still exist. More than 60 people, including Itchkawich, called me – most starting with a gleeful “I’m calling from my rotary phone!” – or emailed me or left online comments informing me how wrong I was to question dial phones’ viability.
“Surely there must be hundreds of New Hampshirites still using their rotary phones. Mine still works perfectly well. I always use it, except when I call a business where I have to ‘push 1’ when I want blah, blah, blah,” Bonnie Knott of Franklin wrote in an email. “I would have called you on my black rotary phone – hardwired, not plugged, into the wall – but I figured you’d be inundated with calls.”
Like all my contacts, Knott has no plans to change. “I’d hate to give up my rotary phone, since it has a great loud ring,” she wrote.
How common? Good question
If you’re wondering how many people still use a rotary phone, the answer is – nobody knows.
No data exists about how many dial phones are still hooked into networks in New Hampshire or, so far as I know, anywhere else.
“I could probably figure out some arcane switch measurement, but it wouldn’t be a part of our business and there’s no reason,” said Ken Paker of TDS Telescom. “I’ve got to believe it’s less than 1 percent.”
Paker is a senior vice president responsible for network service and IT at TDS Telecom, which owns a number of formerly independent telephone companies in New Hampshire and many other states as part of a sprawling national network. Like all telephone company folks I approached in my search, he was amused at the whole idea. What is officially known as “pulse” technology, as compared to tone technology, is so outdated that telephone companies don’t even think about it anymore.
I stopped in at the office of Dunbarton Telephone Co., because I figured if anybody would know about a quirky customer clinging to their dial phone it would be this ultra-local company, which has just 1,400 customers. But they also have more modern technology on their mind, because the company is stringing fiber optic cables to the home of every customer.
But they said that even going hyper-digital doesn’t mean dial phones no longer work.
“The software asks you whether you want tone or pulse for the customer,” said Mark Andrews, a plant supervisor. “Ours defaults to ‘tone’.”
He said he’s never tried switching the setting to “pulse” because no customers have asked, so he’s not even sure if it will work.
Paker from TDS gave me more details, looking back at the AT&T days when the whole network was switches connected by copper wires.
“In the old days, calls all went back to the central office across the copper network” where they encountered mechanical switches that sent the call on its way. Long-distance calls took longer to connect back then partly because they had to go through several such switches on the way.
“As networks progressed, (switches) started getting closer to the home,” Paker said. For the copper network, they now exist in those mysterious metal cabinets you occasionally see alongside the road.
Fiber-optic and many cable-modem networks put the equivalent of the switch right at the customer’s home, translating the signal for the copper wires inside the house. As long as those switches still support rotary dialing, and most do, the old phones will work.
Fiber homes have something called an Optical Network Termination unit, or ONT, in the house that translates the light pulses into electricity that can be carried by the copper wires inside your house. The ONT usually handles pulse or dial phones just fine, said Paker. The same goes with most cable modems, although not all: The voice portion of Comcast’s Xfinity system warns that it doesn’t work with rotary phones.
There are enough rotary-phone users out there that at least one company goes out of its way to attract them: Amica Insurance in Rhode Island has a dedicated phone line just for dial telephones.
“We are a 111-year-old company, and we pride ourselves on building lasting relationships with our policyholders. On average, we receive approximately 5,000 of these calls each year,” the company said in response to my queries.
History of the technology
If you’re curious about the technology behind dial telephones – and who isn’t? – the best place to find out more is the New Hampshire Telephone Museum in Warner. As well as an extensive collection of rotary phones, it has switching equipment that shows how the clicks produced when the phone dial spins become electronic pulses that rush over copper wires and eventually cause mechanical switches to move, creating an end-to-end connection from one phone to another.
Rotary dialing entered the Bell System as early as 1919 but didn’t replace all human operators until after World War II. Touch-tone dialing was introduced at the 1962 World’s Fair, but only took off in the 1970s. It was slow to spread because equipment had to be changed in each of the thousands of central offices that handled the local exchange, as signified by the three digits at the start of the phone number – such as CA4, or 224, in Concord.
“It varied over a decade or more, because you had to change the switching equipment into more electronic systems,” said Paul Violette, president of the museum and a former phone-company employee. “In Concord it didn’t change until 1978. They were still using pulse, step-by-step switching. I was there and I remember when it changed.”
Because of the slow rollout, regulators required AT&T, the national Ma Bell telephone network, to support both pulse and tone dialing. The regulation was carried over after the telephone system was deregulated in the 1980s but it appears to have faded away since then; the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission does not have any requirement about supporting rotary phones these days.
So it’s up to manufacturers of switching equipment to decide whether to include support for pulse dialing. Most do because it’s cheap and easy – “just a few transistors” according to one correspondent.
“I think the (equipment) companies support rotary out of inertia rather than design,” said Violette.
Even if the telephone system and the connection to a house support rotary dialing, however, there’s one possible problem with a rotary phone: Making it ring.
Although a few people who contacted the Monitor praised the loud ring on their decades-old telephones, especially people whose hearing is not what it once was, often times the wiring in modern networks can’t handle old-fashioned mechanical bells.
“In ringing the phone, you basically have to put more power over the copper line,” said Paker of TDS. “The phone’s sitting there, doing nothing, then it gets this surge of power and says oh, I’m supposed to ring. ... The old Bell System phones would take more power to ring them than new phones – you actually had to move the clapper inside that little bell inside the phone. As time has gone by, that has gotten more problematic.”
Advantages and disadvantages
Indeed, several of the people who contacted the Monitor said their rotary phones no longer ring even though they work fine for making an outgoing call.
This wasn’t a problem for them, however, because everybody who contacted us has other phones in their homes, either touch-tone landlines or cellphones. The rotary phones were often in secondary locations where calls rarely originate, such as bedrooms or basements. Or sheds.
“I have it out in my woodshed, with a long cord on it so I can bring it in the house,” said Bill Lounsbury of Northwood. “I have another one, which is black. This one is red – I like the red one.”
This leads to the question of exactly why these people keep their rotary phones, aside from the fact that it appeals to the inner cheapskate in many of us. Dialing a rotary phone is slower than using a touch-tone phone and makes it impossible to take advantage of options on voicemail systems.
When asked why he keeps the phone Lounsbury, like many callers, touted one benefit that doesn’t actually require a dial.
“We keep it going because if we have a power outage we can call on it. It’s a useful tool if we have a power outage when you can’t charge up cellphones,” he said.
This ability is a function of being a landline phone, one that gets plugged into the wall, whether it is a touch-tone or dial. Such telephones draw their power over the copper phone lines from batteries in telephone switching cabinets, rather than drawing power from the electric grid, so they’re not affected by blackouts.
Another positive aspect of these old phones mentioned by several callers is the shape of the handset. Unlike candybar-shaped mobile phones or flat cellphones, rotary handsets make it easy to place the speaker right against your ear even while talking, which helps older people hear the conversation. And my respondents, not surprisingly, tended to be older.
Jessie Tichko of Canterbury, 60, was about the youngest rotary phone user who contacted me.
Tichko said her phone, which she described as having a “turqoisey blue color,” remains useful as a second phone but admitted that it also carries a psychological benefit.
“It has that sentimental attachment of our first apartment together,” she said of herself and her husband. “We’ll keep it as long as we have a landline.”
Many people agreed that nostalgia played a part of their decision.
“It’s something I’ve grown up with, it’s a part of history,” said Anita Tomaszewski of Franklin.
And she added another possible benefit to keeping her phone, which dates to 1959 and is big and solid, heavier than some modern computers.
“It’s something that could go with an Agatha Christie or Murder She Wrote. If an intruder broke in, you could use it as a weapon,” she joked.
Are rotary phones making a comeback?
At a time when vinyl records and independent bookstores are making a comeback against their digital and online competition, the question is whether rotary phones might come back, too.
The answer, said Violette of the Telephone Museum, is almost certainly no.
For one thing, nobody actually makes them anymore. You can find old ones online if you hunt, and there are new phones that have a dial – but they’re fakes. They don’t actually use pulse dialing; they translate the dial’s spin into tones.
And, Violette says, the technology isn’t really better.
“Older was tinnier sounding. It didn’t have the tight bandwidth, the crystal clear signal that you get on digital phones today,” he said.
If you got an old dial phone in the attic or basement that you don’t want any more, by the way, the Telephone Museum in Warner will be happy to take it. Even if it’s not special enough to join the collection, Violette said, they can always use it for parts.
As for the many folks who contacted me to celebrate their rotary phones, I think it’s fair to say that they’ll keep using them as long as possible.
“If it broke, would I fix it? Probably, yes. My husband and I are both tinkerers – we’d fix it,” said Itchkawich.
“It’s New Hampshire. We’re savers.”
David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @GraniteGeek